All posts in “Gadgets”

Hands-on with Microsoft’s high-end Surface Book 2

Microsoft’s Surface Book 2 is the most powerful mobile Surface device yet. It easily blows away the Surface Pro, Surface Laptop and, of course, the old Surface Book. It’s also one of the odder devices in the lineup, though. It’s not just a Surface Pro with a rigid keyboard. It’s a relatively heavy base with a powerful processor and graphics card and a big battery — and it has a surprisingly light removable screen that turns it into a tablet and that features a less powerful processor and graphics chip.

Microsoft shipped me a top-of-the-line 15-inch Surface Book 2 review unit with the latest Intel Core i7-8650U CPU clocked at 1.9 GHz, a discrete Nvidia 1060 GPU with 6GB of RAM, 16GB of memory and a terabyte SSD. That’s $3,299 worth of Surface Book, though at the low-end, you can also get a 13-inch machine for $1,499 with an i5 processor, 8GB of RAM and an integrated Intel GPU. In between, there are a number of other 15-inch models with Nvidia 1050 GPUs and varying numbers for RAM and disk space.

There surely a world of difference between the performance of these low-end and high-end machines, so you get what you pay for. But Microsoft’s message here is pretty clear: the Surface Book 2 is basically a mobile workstation for those who want to edit videos and photos, play games on the road or just need a really powerful mobile machine to crunch numbers or compile a Linux kernel or two. It’s Microsoft’s challenger to the MacBook Pro and it’s not shying away from the comparison.

I’ve only had the Surface Book 2 on my desk for just over 24 hours, so this isn’t a definitive review (I have barely been able to run the battery down once in that time, after all). We’ll do that in a week or so, after I’ve had some more real-world experience with it.

Even after a short time with the new Surface Book, I’ve come away impressed (anything else at this price would be quite a disappointment, of course).

We can argue about its design — that rounded hinge that leaves quite a gap even when the laptop is closed wasn’t everyone’s cup of tea when the first version launched and while Microsoft has tweaked the hinge, the gap is still as prominent as ever. You may even call it ugly. But it sure makes it stand out in this crowded laptop market.

What you can’t argue about, though, is the overall quality of the build. The base is a solid piece of metal. The tablet/screen is securely attached to it (and the keyboard has a key that releases it from its base). The large chiclet keyboard has enough travel and gives you a good indication that you’ve pressed a button, making it quite comfortable to type on.

The touch-sensitive screen is bright and at a resolution of 3240×2160, you’re getting a higher pixel density than on the MacBook Pro. Thankfully, Microsoft and the software developers in its ecosystem have fixed most of Windows 10’s issues with high-density displays, so you can actually now enjoy the experience. The screen may just be a bit too glossy for some (too many laptop screens these days are), but it’s winter in Oregon and we won’t see the sun until next year, so I haven’t been able to test that.

Let’s talk about the key feature of the Surface Book 2 for a moment: the detachable screen. It’s surprisingly light, especially when you consider that it’s a 15-inch tablet with a promised five-hour battery life. But is it more than just a novelty? Microsoft argues that you can detach it and use it as a tablet, fold it around to go into “studio mode” for comfortable sketching, or detach the screen, turn it around, re-attach it for mobile presentation.

Some of these feel like niche use cases and I can’t quite see myself doing any of this on a regular basis but that’s probably a personal thing. I’d be quite happy with the Surface Book 2 if the screen didn’t detach, too (though at a lower price).

The power of the dedicated GPU should make for a pretty good gaming experience (though not at full resolution and the highest settings — it’s not a 1080, after all. We’ll run some benchmarks in the next few days.

Oh – and if you’re worried about having to use dongles for this laptop, don’t worry. It comes with a USB-C port, two regular USB-A ports, an SD-card slot and the usual Surface connector for charging and attaching the Surface Dock if you have one. And there’s a headphone jack, too. There’s no Mini DisplayPort like in the first-gen model, but you can connect up to two 4K monitors at 30Hz or a single 4k monitor at 60Hz via the USB-C port — or via a Surface Dock, of course. You can’t drive four screen by using both the USB-C and Surface Dock simultaneously, though.

What about the negatives? The fan, especially in the screen, tends to kick in a bit too often. It’s quiet but noticeable, even when the CPU load isn’t all that high. The screen can also get a bit warmer than I’d like. It’s also heavy. At 4.2 lbs, you’re not going to have to double-check that it’s in your backpack. And there’s the design with its odd hinge — but I already mentioned that.

Unlike the first-gen Surface Book, this one doesn’t seem to suffer from the regular blue screens of death and other issues that buyers of its predecessor had to deal with. I hope that remains true as I continue to use it.

Microsoft is clearly making a play for disgruntled MacBook users by throwing in a three-month subscription to Adobe’s Creative Cloud Photography plan for the next two months, talking up how well Autodesk Maya and other apps work on the Surface Book 2, and — most importantly — by simply making this a high performance machine.

So will the Surface Book 2 get MacBook Pro users to switch? That probably depends on how much you love/hate Windows 10, but it strikes me as a good — and far more powerful — alternative to Apple’s current mobile offerings. And it’s copious amount of power that sets it apart from the masses (plus its detachable screen, but I just don’t know how big a selling point that’ll be for potential users).

The new Surface Books are available for pre-order now and will start shipping tomorrow.

Pip is a retro games console for kids to learn coding

The Raspberry Pi Foundation has been incredibly successful at sparking all sorts of creativity via its low cost microcomputers, which arrived in the market back in 2012. Its core electronics are also indirectly responsible for UK-based learn-to-code startups like Kano and pi-top, which have built devices and VC-backed businesses atop Pi.

Well here’s another UK startup using Pi electronics as the foundation for an edtech business idea. Their device-in-the-making Pip, which is currently raising crowdfunds on Kickstarter, is powered by the Raspberry Pi Compute Module set within a handheld console gaming casing that packs a touchscreen, plus speaker, control buttons, multiple ports and even some colored LEDs.

The idea is to engage kids with a retro games device which also doubles as a code learning environment via a browser-based platform the team are also building, called Curiosity. A second strand to their concept will invite budding hardware hackers to get plugging and playing via a connector on the console that can be used with a maker expansion pack with a breadboard attachment for tinkering with and learning about electronics components.

The team says their software platform will support coding in JavaScript, Python, Lua, HTML/CSS and PHP. While the device will be bundled with step-by- step tutorials to “show the basics” — from coding Snake, to making LEDs flash, to, they claim, “programing smart devices”.

That’s the grand vision. For now Pip remains a prototype — and the Glasgow, UK based startup still needs to reach its £30k funding goal on Kickstarter, though it’s already around half way there after a few days running the campaign. Early bird pre-order pricing is £150, with the intended future RRP being £200.

It’s also true that kids today are already pretty spoiled for choice when it comes to learn to code and/or hardware hack gizmos parents can buy them. So we asked Pip’s founders what makes their approach different?

They described “pocket-sized portability” as Pip’s “main USP” — combined with its “integrated touchscreen and friction-free, open-ended programmability”.

“Pip is compatible with cheap electronics components that can be bought anywhere, as well as the thriving Raspberry Pi HAT ecosystem,” said co-founders Sukhvir Dhillon and Jason Frame.

“Pip makes use of standard languages and tools. Yes, it supports block-based programming for beginners, but once they’re ready to move on we will support for a number of popular languages… all of which have a huge number of freely available resources online for learning.

“Our role in this is to remove the barriers between idea and creation, making these tools immediately usable. Then you can take this knowledge and skill to go on to make things beyond the Pip platform.”

They also noted that Pip is also “still a Pi” — meaning users “can easily swap the SD card, and Pip can become a capable desktop computer (when connected to a monitor, mouse and keyboard), or even a portable RetroPie-powered emulation station”.

Having a goal to support open standards and standard programming languages could indeed make for a device with greater longevity and utility than a learn to code gadget that only supports ‘programming’ via a proprietary and over simplified code blocks system (say), which a child may soon outgrow.

Although very many learn to code devices will fail to make any serious dent in learning outcomes without the support of educational institutions to establish use of the device within a more structured learning environment to counteract the problem of individual kids getting bored and putting the toy away in a drawer.

Pip’s co-founders are initially targeting the product at parents (and/or ‘big kid’ makers) but say their long term goal is to get the product (and accompanying subscription-based software platform) into educational institutions.

“The software has been developed in such a way that students can write code and test it on whatever equipment the school has available, before running it on Pip itself — this means that schools are not forced to purchase one Pip for every student,” they noted.

The bootstrapping team has been developing Pip since late 2016, taking in some support from Scottish Enterprise but without any formal investors.

At this stage they say they’ve built five working prototypes of their pre-production v5 model — including “custom circuit board built around the Raspberry Pi Compute Module and associated peripherals, high resolution touchscreen, built-in battery, six-piece resin-cast case with integrated kickstand”.

Though there’s clearly still a long way to turn the prototype into shipping product.

They have a Kickstarter timeline of August-September 2018 for shipping Pip to backers. But as ever with crowdfunding campaigns the usual strong caveats apply: You’re making a bet on an idea that may never come to fruition. Many crowdfunded projects fail entirely to deliver.

Hardware can also be especially complex. And even if a device makes it, it may take longer than expected and not be exactly what was originally billed — so, if you are happy to take a punt, it also pays to expect delays and not get too hung up on specific details.

Polaroid’s new gadget turns your phone into an instant camera

Instagram addicts may now have a new reason to give Motorola’s Moto Z another look.

Polaroid and Motorola have teamed up on a new Moto Mod for the company’s Z series of phones. The Polaroid Insta-Share Printer is an instant camera accessory that turns the Moto Z into a tiny photo printer.  

It clips onto the back of the phone and connects to the Moto Z’s camera (the Mod also has a dedicated shutter button to make snapping photos even easier) to turn the phone into a tiny Polaroid camera. 

You can also use the accessory to print out photos you’ve already taken, like your favorite Instagram shots and other pics you have stored on your phone. Speaking of Instagram, the Polaroid Mod has an accompanying app that will let you add text and filters to your pics before you print them.

The convenience doesn’t come cheap, though. At $199, the Polaroid Moto Mod is significantly pricier than Polaroid’s OneStep 2 camera and other standalone instant cameras. 

Though we’ve noted before that Motorola’s Z line stands out as one of the best implementations of modular phones, many of its Moto Mods, which include a mobile projector, Alexa-enabled speaker, and 360-degree camera, require a significant investment in addition to the price of the phone.

Still, if you have a Moto Z and love the idea of printing your photos, it could be worth it to get the Mod so you don’t have to carry around an additional camera.

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Amazon brings Echo and Alexa to Canada

Amazon has finally brought its line of Alexa-powered Echo speakers to Canada. The release of Echo hardware has been long awaited by America’s northern neighbor, which could only watch and wait as Echo went through two generations in the U.S.

Echo Dot, the second generation Echo and the Echo Plus with integrated smart home hub are all on sale in Canada as of today, compete with full Alexa voice assistant support. The Dot is $49.99 for a limited time (regular $69.99), the Echo is $99.99 (normally $129.99) and the Plus is $169.99 ($199.99 normally).

The launch also comes alongside amazon opening a dedicated smart home devices store in Canada, and offering access to Amazon Prime Music for Canadians, with over 1 million songs available to stream free for Prime members.

A lot of Canadians are already using Alexa and Echo, having procured them from US retailers or third parties who will ship across the border, but this has always involved workarounds like having a US Amazon account. Echo finally being available to Canadians officially is a big step, and is likely to strike a chord with customers. Google Home launched in the market earlier this year, too, so now consumers have some variety in their smart home speaker options.

Devices are on sale now, but will start to ship at the beginning of December

Call to ban sale of IoT toys with proven security flaws

Ahead of 2017’s present buying season, UK consumer rights group Which? has warned parents about the risks of giving connected toys to their children, and called for devices with known security and/or privacy risks to be banned from sale on kids safety grounds.

Working with security researchers the group has spent the past 12 months investigating several popular Bluetooth or wi-fi toys that are on sale at major retailers, and says it found “concerning vulnerabilities” in several devices that could “enable anyone to effectively talk to a child through their toy”.

It’s published specific findings on four of the toys it looked at: Namely the Furby Connect; I-Que Intelligent Robot; Toy-fi Teddy; and CloudPets cuddly toy.

The latter toy drew major criticism from security experts in February when it was discovered that its maker had stored thousands of unencrypted voice recordings of kids and parents using the toy in a publicly accessible online database — with no authentication required to access the data. (Data was subsequently deleted and ransomed.)

Which? says in all cases it was found to be far too easy for someone to illicitly pair their own device to the toys and use the tech to talk to a child. It especially highlights Bluetooth connections not having been properly secured — noting for example there was no requirement for a user to enter a password, PIN code or any other authentication to gain access.

“That person would need hardly any technical know-how to ‘hack’ your child’s toy,” it writes. “Bluetooth has a range limit, usually 10 meters, so the immediate concern would be someone with malicious intentions nearby. However, there are methods for extending Bluetooth range, and it’s possible someone could set up a mobile system in a vehicle to trawl the streets hunting for unsecured toys.”

In the case of the Furby, Which?’s external security researchers also thought it would be possible for someone to re-engineer its firmware to turn the toy into a listening device due to a vulnerability they found in the toy’s design (which it’s not publicly disclosing).

Although they were not themselves able to do this during the time they had for the investigation.

Which? describes its findings as “the tip of a very worrying iceberg” — also flagging other concerns raised over kids’ IoT devices from several European regulatory bodies.

Last month, for example, the Norwegian Consumer Council warned over similar security and privacy concerns pertaining to kids’ smartwatches.

This summer the FBI also issued a consumer notice warning that IoT toys “could put the privacy and safety of children at risk due to the large amount of personal information that may be unwittingly disclosed”.

“You wouldn’t let a young child play with a smartphone unsupervised and our investigation shows parents need to apply the same level of caution if considering giving a child a connected toy,” said Alex Neill, Which? MD of home products and services in a statement.

“While there is no denying the huge benefits these devices can bring to our daily lives, safety and security should be the absolute priority. If that can’t be guaranteed, then the products should not be sold.”